Leicester Secular Society



Secularism, Humanism, and Nonreligious Ceremonies

by Wilfred Gaunt

The following are the notes for a talk given by Leicester Secular Society member Wilfred Gaunt to The UK Brights at 'The Pitcher and Piano', London, on Monday 25th September 2006.

Historical Introduction

Once upon a time, if you wanted to travel by train from London to Portsmouth, you had two choices: the old Southern Railway, green-carriage-livery route from Victoria, or the “God’s Wonderful Railway”, chocolate-and-cream-carriage-livery route from Paddington.

Similarly, the paths from the 18th century pinnacle of the Enlightenment to our present stances have been along two different routes, and they are only now converging towards a common destination.

For me, the departure time and place that has led to our present position, was the year 1767, here in London. Specifically, the coffee house frequented by Dr Johnson, coupled with the lodgings of Benjamin Franklin in Craven Street.

Previously, there had been a philosophical progression from Descartes, through Spinoza et al, that, coupled with the new scientific breakthroughs over that period, had shaken blind, unquestioning faith in religious verities. 1767, in London, was the focal point, where all that had gone before came together, and was then projected interactively forward to give us our present circumstance.

By some serendipitous co-incidence, in 1767, could be found together in London: Dr Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and Dr. Pringle: all interacting with each other at various social levels, but able to debate and discuss through the medium of the egalitarian, Coffee-House culture of the time. Although Tom Paine was the least of this company, he was profoundly influenced by the ideas he heard being discussed; and eventually became the radical bullet, which, some seven years later, Benjamin Franklin dispatched to the American Colonies.

The United States Constitution that consequently emerged was the crowning glory of Enlightenment ideals; and, had it stayed with that, the progress of pure reason would doubtless have continued uninterrupted. However, the French Revolution came along; and, with it, the Reign of Terror; and leaderless, out-of-control mobs running bloody riot. This caused an intellectual and higher-class backlash against liberalising attitudes and philosophies: not helped by the Gordon riots here in London, which came close to destabilising our Government as well.

Thereafter, the path of progress split: the one quietly following the intellectual, religious-reformist-in-the-face-of-new-evidence route, the other following the political reactionary, anti-establishment and, therefore, anti-religious route.

The reform movement – political reactionary – of the early 19th century was founded in the new, politically-unrepresented, economic power of the growing industrial areas, against the unwillingness of the old landed gentry to cede their position. With the examples of the United States Constitution, the French Revolution, and Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man” and “Age of Reason” before them, the industrial workers became particularly restless; and there were many clashes with the militias. Because the responsibility for calling out the militias and reading out the riot act was in the hands of the local Justices of the Peace, who were, too often, also the local church leaders, there grew up an understandable disenchantment with religious authority.

The mood of the time can be judged from Wellington’s attitude to his men at Waterloo: “I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God, they frighten me.” Fear – understandable in the light of the French Revolution – was the driving force behind establishment opposition to reform. Even as late as 1830, it took a lot of persuading to get Wellington to go and open the Liverpool and Manchester Railway: he was a military man, and well aware how fast, cheap travel could enable working men to congregate quickly into a mob. Much as mobile phones, nowadays, enable youths to instantly organise raves. Of course, in the event, it was left to the authorities to show just what malevolence the railways were capable of enabling: through the American Civil War and the First World War.

But back to the 19th century. Around the middle of the century G J Holyoake coined the word Secularism (that the state, morals, education etc. should be independent of religion), and thereafter, Secular Societies formed in most of the population centres of the country. To counter any possible government attempts to suppress the movement, each district Society was a separate entity: the London group called themselves the National Secular Society in 1866. Secularism was an openly political reformist movement: left wing, and actively anti-religious. The Secularists set up the first Co-operative Societies, and supported the political progression that led up to the formation of the Socialist Party. Some were imprisoned for blasphemy, or publishing Tom Paine’s writings; and one, Bradlaugh, got himself elected to Parliament, and refused to swear the oath of allegiance on the Bible: so sparking a protracted, Tony Benn type tussle against unyielding traditions. Even in the post WW2 era, they were still active in defying the Sunday Observance laws: by playing cricket and football in the public parks on the Sabbath.

The original, overt, anti-religious campaigning stance of the Secularism movement is still maintained by the movement’s journal: “The Free Thinker”.

The Leicester Secular Society was formed in 1851 – claimed to be the first – and the Secular Hall there was opened in 1881. The Conway Hall, around the corner from here, although built in 1929, can, nevertheless, be regarded as a giant version of our hall. Over the years, most of the big names and activists in the anti-religious and left-wing political movements have lectured at the Leicester Secular Society.

However, as rights were gained, and religious institutions adopted a more compromising stance, the Secular membership dwindled. Ours is the only .Secular Hall, of the three or four that were built, which is still run by a Secular Society. And we are the only one of the original Societies outside London still in existence. As one of our members put it: “Were it not for the Hall, there would not be a Leicester Secular Society.”

The publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was probably the trigger that turned the intellectual path from 1767 into a more active, questioning phase: notably through Huxley’s coinage of the word and notion of “agnosticism”, the progress of the more thoughtful and progressive Unitarian Church, and the setting-up of the Ethical Press to publish academically approved radical literature. This last reached down towards the “lower class” Secularists by publishing cheap educational books. While the Secularist side was represented to the intellectuals by the Fabians’ Society, promoted by George Bernard Shaw. At the Conway Hall there is a list of “ministers”, dating from the 19th century, when it was still a religious organisation, illustrating its mutation into a mission based on investigative reason alone. The British Humanist Association, as we know it now, was formally founded in 1963; and there is a strong element of independent, area groups: who regard themselves as being merely “affiliated” to the national body. I’m not sure which came first: the independent groups affiliating, or splitting off from the National Association: though it is worth remembering that, historically, they were separate Unitarian congregations.

The membership of the Humanists is top heavy with distinguished academics; though they have been making efforts in recent years to widen their membership base in order to gain more political clout. However, the very quality of their representatives, and their quiet, non-confrontational, a-political approach, has enabled them over the years to insinuate themselves into influential lobbying positions within the corridors of power.

They have managed to get members seconded onto local SACRE committees; and, despite not having voting rights, have, nevertheless, been able to persuade several education authorities to include Humanism and other non-religious groups in their Religious Studies curricula: initially here in London. Unable to separate moral and ethical matters from the teaching of religion in schools, the Humanists have campaigned for, and succeeded in getting, Citizenship and Critical Thinking added to the general national curriculum.

Some years ago they set-up a national, regional network of trained Ceremony Officiants, initially for funerals, and, more recently for weddings and baby-namings. From 2005 humanist weddings have full legal status.

The Humanists’ credibility is now so high, that they have been accepted for consultation into the Cabinet Office: with the same rating as the religious leaders. All in all, they punch well above their weight.

The National Secular Society has been able to take on a more influential lobbying position on the coat-tails of the Humanists, but they are still too confrontational and politically biased to be truly effective.

The Humanists, generally, feel sniffily superior to the Secularists; and the Secularists regard the Humanists as a shower of upper-class snobs. Though fence-mending is an ongoing operation; and their common destination seems to be within sight.

Personal Experiences

And so, on to my experiences as a funeral officiant.

It was as a result of attending two non-religious funerals, one in Holland and one here in England: where they played music for ten minutes or so and then closed the curtains, without anything being said, that I decided, on finding myself in the Leicester Secular Society some ten years ago, to try my hand at conducting such services: and at least give a eulogy. So I read-up the Humanist booklet on the subject, and attended a course on Bereavement Counselling; followed by canvassing all the funeral directors in the local yellow pages. I’d already done a few funeral services when the Humanists approached the Society to enquire if anyone of us would take their training course. This I did, and for a short period worked under their auspices; but after a series of unfortunate happenings, circumstances, and ideological differences, I became freelance again.

My main objection to Humanist Ceremonial is the set of dogmatic restrictions on what ONE can, and cannot do in such ceremonies. It tends to be a direct mirror image of the dogmatism of religion: which, I suppose, is what one might expect from an administration composed mainly of women teachers. The main losers in all this ideological posturing are the poor bereaved families: who pay the piper, but are not allowed to call the tune.

Let us get one thing clear, the number of people who ask directly for Humanist funerals are very few and far between. The vast majority of those asking for my services want a non-religious funeral service; and know nothing about Humanism or Secularism: even if they’ve happened to hear the words before. It’s never been part of their school curriculum, and doesn’t often come up in conversations across pub bars, or the chatter between women in the mums and toddlers. Only a bereavement has forced them to face the subject; and the practical fact is that they’ve never been to church, and would feel uncomfortable with a load of strange ceremonial: so they plump for a non-religious funeral service.

The reality of the situation is that most of these people are just not interested in the subject: don’t know, and don’t want to get involved. Gentle enquiry reveals that most regard the taking of stances as ridiculous because we don’t know anything of such matters; and they tend to divide equally into something-must–have-started-all-this deists and don’t-know agnostics.

Of course, these positions and attitudes do not support commitment, and if there are one or two committed religious members in the family, they usually insist on, and get, a religious funeral. I’ve only once attended a reverse situation: where a young religious widow had been overruled by the atheistic extended family. She was obviously distressed; so, when she accompanied me back to the car, I suggested she contact a priest, and ask him to perform a short ceremony over the coffin on the evening before the funeral proper: that bucked her up no end.

In practice, one is often asked to include a hymn to keep old Aunty Florry happy. This would be a big no – no for the Humanists. If the requests push the proposed service over a certain limit, then I hand the whole business over to a Unitarian Minister.

A lady member of our Society, who is also a Humanist, has taken all the ceremony courses – baby namings, weddings and funerals – of the Humanists, and is in the process of taking over the funeral duties from me. She also applied to become Humanist chaplain to the local hospitals.

Her experience as a celebrant has shown her that a religious representative cannot meet the needs of humanists, atheists, etc in their time of need. Although ministers of religion are usually treated with courtesy by the non-religious, the underlying feeling is one of distrust and even distaste.

A religious representative is the last person any secularist wants to see at the lowest ebb of family life. She therefore campaigned to join the University Hospitals NHS Trust chaplaincy team to provide 'spiritual' care to patients, staff, and visitors within the hospital community.

The patients she has seen have been universally surprised and glad that they have been able to talk with a fellow human being who shares their philosophy of life. She believes 'spiritual' care is clearly needed in hospitals, but still looks to the day when her fellow team members accept a secular outlook as having an equivalent legitimacy.

The most vociferous line from secularists is that chaplaincy should not receive state funding. The outcome of withdrawal of state funding could be that wealthy evangelising do-gooders will have free rein to prey upon those made vulnerable by illness.

However, unless equality and diversity come into the equation, and non-religious 'chaplains' receive proportionality of provision and respect and paid posts in the proportions of the Census, it will be difficult for her to see any justification for continued state funding. (At least 1-in-6 is non-religious in Leicester according to the Census).

A couple of weeks ago she attended a multi-faith meeting to talk about humanism and her work in the community, when it was pointed out to her that people without belief in certain doctrines will burn in the flames of hell.

So the battle is still not over; in fact, it is starting all over again.